Time to Discover: Things to do in the New Forest

Looking for things to do in the New Forest? Don’t miss this step by step guide. 

The New Forest is one of my favourite destinations in the UK.  Just a short hop from London, it’s an area ripe for exploration. Planning your trip to the New Forest? Here’s what you need to know.

Planning Your Visit to the New Forest: Practical Tips

Where to Stay in the New Forest

While there are plenty of hotels in the New Forest, it’s really a destination that lends itself well to hiring a cottage so you can do your own thing. New Forest Living offers a range of comfortable and stylish properties dotted around the New Forest.

How to Get There

One of the best things about the New Forest is that it’s actually really close to London. In just an hour and a half, you can go from the concrete jungle of the capital to this magic woodland.

The easiest way to get to the New Forest from London is by train. There’s a direct train from Waterloo that stops at many of the biggest towns including Ashurst, Beaulieu, Brockenhurst and Lymington.

Best Things to do and Top Attractions in the New Forest

New Forest National Park

Photo credit: Helen Hotson

The big attraction in the New Forest is, uh, the New Forest itself. A large swathe of it has been dedicated as a National Park, and it’s totally unmissable.

I know, England has a lot of woodland. But this is a very, very special woodland.

Describing it as a “magical forest” seems a bit of a travel writing cliche – but it’s very fitting in this case. Not only is the dense forest spectacularly beautiful, but then there’s the abundance of wildlife as well.

Deers, hedgehogs, owls – oh my. The New Forest definitely has the best of our British native species.

Then there’s the livestock. It is, of course, criminal not to mention the gorgeous New Forest ponies. It’s basically impossible to drive through the forest without spotting a group of gorgeous ponies just chilling by the roadside.

As well as the ponies, you might also spot sheep, cows and pigs as well. 

The fact that they all roam freely dates back to commoner’s rights, which allow locals to let their animals roam. Don’t worry, though – they’re all really well taken care of.

Exbury Gardens

Photo credit: Shutterstock

The New Forest does have a bit of a regal air about it – it was, after all, declared a Royal Forest in the 12th Century. You’ll definitely also feel this at the sprawling Exbury Gardens.

Located just east of the town of Beaulieu, the gardens are one of the many properties owned by the ultra-wealthy Rothschild family. Luckily for us commoners, they keep them open for the public to enjoy.

In total, the gardens are over 200 acres and absolutely gorgeous. It’s beautiful no matter what the season, but in spring they explode with azaleas, camellias and more.

There are several set paths that will allow you to take in the best of the garden. Another way to explore it is to catch the famous steam train that leaves from the north-east of the garden. 

Even the Queen has ridden on it!

Horse Riding at Burley Villa Riding School

The New Forest is pretty much paradise for horse lovers. While just spotting the famous ponies is a thrill, it’s even better to explore the best places in the New Forest on horseback.

For those of us who aren’t lucky enough to have a trusty pony in the garden, there’s a great riding school that specialises in rides through the forest.

Burley Villa Riding School is the place to go to enjoy the ultimate New Forest riding experience. Their riding school is perfect for experienced riders as well as total novices, with well-trained horses that love nothing more than a gentle stroll through the forest.

They also do lessons and “own a pony for the day” experiences for kids (the ten-year-old in me is loving that idea.)

Hengistbury Head

Photo credit: Gygorgy Kotorman

Technically it’s just out of the New Forest, but it’s an easy (and fabulous) attraction to add to your itinerary.

Hengistbury Head is a headland that juts out of the coast not far from Bournemouth. It’s a bit of a nature lovers playground, with lots of different animals around and a pretty amazing beach.

It’s not just me who thinks so – the beach huts here are some of the priciest in the country. Recently, five teensy-eensy huts sold for over a million pounds. Now that’s London pricey.

As well as the beautiful nature, Hengistbury Head also has a cool hidden history. It’s a named Ancient Monument, as there’s believed to be am Upper Paleolithic settlement underneath it. Pretty cool. 

New Forest Otter, Owl and Wildlife Park

I might be a city kind of girl, but I’m certainly not immune to the charms of British wildlife. I mean, come on, how cute are otters?

Since most British wildlife can be on the timid side, for the best chance of spotting them you’ll want to head for a wildlife park. I love the New Forest Wildlife Park, not just for their adorable animals, but also for their commitment to conservation.

They do a great job in looking after hurt and rescued otters, as well as beautiful native owls as well. 

Otters and owls might be the most well-known residents, but wait – there’s more! The wildlife park is also home to other native animals including deer, ferrets, water voles and hedgehogs (another fave of mine).

While I can’t guarantee you’ll see every animal at the wildlife park, you’re pretty certain to come face to face with plenty of gorgeous British critters.

Bolderwood Deer Sanctuary

Photo credit: J W Edwards

While we’re on the topic of British wildlife, another of the best places to visit in the New Forest is the Bolderwood Deer Sanctuary.

As the name suggests, this park is most famous for its population of Fallow Deer. Between April and September, the deer are fed by a park ranger – giving you an amazing chance to see them from the viewing platform.

There’s no set time as it’s more of a “when the ranger gets around to it” kind of thing. However, it is between 12.30 and 2.30pm and you can go for a walk in the nearby woodland while you wait.

Best of all, there’s no cost for entry – so it’s one of the best free things to do in the New Forest.

Things to do in the New Forest When it Rains

Beaulieu National Motor Museum

If you prefer horsepower to horses (haha – great dad joke there), then you can’t miss a visit to the Beaulieu National Motor Museum.

This museum is quite the playground for petrol heads, having been started by a motoring enthusiast by the name of Edward Doglas-Scott-Montagu. If the triple barrel surname didn’t give it away already, he was really rich and powerful. 

So rich and powerful he actually introduced King Edward VII to the “automobile”.

Not content just to introduce royals to the joy that is driving, he also opened up a small display for members of the paying public. Over time, it grew to be one of the best car museums in the world.

There’s a permanent collection of over 200 historic vehicles from Mini Coopers to Bugattis, as well as temporary exhibits. 

Some of the exhibits hosted in the past include a pretty awesome display of James Bond cars (‘cos we all know the cars were the best bit of the movies.)

Highcliffe Castle

Photo credit: Ronald Ian Smiles

Pretty much all castles are pretty fancy, but I’ve got to admit Highcliffe Castle is kind of what fairytale castle dreams are made of.

Fittingly, the Castle is in a style known as “romantic” and, well, romantic it is. You half expect Belle of Beauty of the Beast to suddenly slide down the balustrade in her cupcake-like dress.

Highcliffe Castle was built in the 1830s by a DIplomat inspired by French style (fair enough, they are pretty stylish across the channel). 

The castle was inhabited for about a century, before it became a children’s home in the 1950s. After a devastating fire in the 70s (luckily no-one was hurt), it was almost entirely abandoned.

Luckily, in the 1990s, the decision was made to restore it and open to the public. 

I have to say I’m pretty glad they did. It really is a spectacular sight, and one of the best things to see in the New Forest.

Hurst Castle

Photo credit: Ian Woolcock

While Highcliffe Castle might be an impressive structure, you can’t really beat the setting of Hurst Castle.

Just a little way from the edge of the New Forest, Hurst Castle is built on Hurst Split – a large causeway that juts out from the coast. As a result, it takes in some pretty epic views of the sea.

It also has a pretty amazing history. It was built by Henry VIII (yes, the one with the penchant for executing his wives) in the 16th century. 

It was first and foremost a defensive structure, and played a role in many conflicts. Notably, during the English Civil War of the 1600s, it was used to detain King Charles I.

The castle remains in pretty good condition, and is a great stop for anyone interested in English or military history. Or who just likes to look at cool castles.

New Forest Heritage Centre

The New Forest is so much more than a simple woodland. Between the commoner’s animals and the links to the English aristocracy, there’s an amazing backstory to this place.

To learn about it, I recommend a visit to the New Forest Heritage Centre in Lyndhurst. 

This is no usual little village museum – it’s really well done with a wealth of information. I especially loved learning about the New Forest Pony Sales (sadly, I decided my London flat was not the ideal home for a pony.)

The staff here are really enthusiastic and happy to chat all about the New Forest. 

So, if a little rain is threatening to spoil your fun – a visit to this museum is definitely one of the best things to do in the New Forest.

Buckler’s Hard Story

An attraction devoted to shipbuilding might seem a little on the niche side, but Buckler’s Hard Story has much wider appeal. 

You certainly don’t need to be a naval enthusiast to enjoy this place to go in the New Forest.

Buckler’s Hard Story is essentially a small village that was all set up around shipbuilding in the early 19th century. Over the next 200 years, many of Britain’s most significant ships would be built right in the New Forest.

As well as providing exhibits and information about this ships themselves, Buckler’s Hard also allows you to learn more about life for the workers. 

Several cottages are open to show what life was like for the shipbuilders and their families. While the cottages are modest, the setting by the water is pretty amazing.

There’s also a cafe and a gift shop, as well as a lake and garden trail to explore.

Unusual Things to do in the New Forest

Stand Up Paddleboarding in Milford on Sea

Image credit: Helen Hotson

The New Forest is a playground for outdoorsy types, and it’s not just the woodland trails on offer. Another great option is trying out Stand Up Paddleboarding.

The ever-popular watersport is on offer at Milford on Sea, a pretty spot to the south of the New Forest. 

While they also do kayaking trips, stand up paddleboarding is where it’s at. They do both single and group paddleboards, with the latter a perfect way to have a family argument while far out from the coast.

I kid, I kid. Afterall, the scenery is gorgeous and the whole thing is very relaxing – arguments will be the last thing on your mind. Plus, it’s a good core workout so it’s absolutely guilt-free fun.

Take a Ranger Walk in the Forest

There are plenty of “do it yourself” walks around the New Forest, but you’ll get even more from a guided walk.

The best kind are lead by the Forestry Commission – so you can live out your childhood dreams of being a park ranger. Even better? Most of them are totally free.

Throughout the year, the Forestry Commission’s rangers run various guided walks. They cover topics from forestry foraging (perfect if you’re planning any Into the Wild style trips) to the history of the New Forest Pony.

Most of them need to be booked ahead but they’re generally free and lots of fun. You can find the calendar on the Forestry Commission website

Sunset Puffin Cruise Across the Solent

Walking is great and all, but how about taking in the beauty of the New Forest from the comfort of a boat, drink in hand?

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it.

That’s exactly what’s on offer with Puffin Cruises, who’ve been operating in the New Forest for some 40 years.

It’s the perfect way to close off a day in this beautiful place, watching the sun set over the forest and hearing some commentary along the way.

New Forest Attractions Map

Click here for a map of the locations featured.

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